I’m standing at the edge of Lake Nicaragua, letting the waves roll over my feet. I climbed over the barrier wall to get here, which I assume is okay because there are others further down the beach who must have done the same. Horses wander about, eating the succulent grasses that grow along the barrier wall. Behind me is the city of Granada, victim to the many battles and attacks of English, Dutch, and French pirates vying for control of Nicaragua. But those battles happened a long time ago. Nobody alive would remember them.
I want to go deeper into the water, but I know that Lake Nicaragua is the one place in the world where we can find freshwater sharks. I peer into the water. I know there are freshwater sharks in there somewhere. Aggressive freshwater sharks. Aggressive freshwater sharks that like shallow water. There are a few other people on this beach, but not many. Maybe there’s a reason.
I take a few more steps into the lake. I hope I don’t step on a sawfish that might be lurking down there, digging up crustaceans in the shallows. It’s true that they won’t attack humans unless they are provoked or surprised, but I imagine if I accidentally step on one, that would meet the definition of a surprise, for both of us.
Sigh. I finally take the plunge in the water, and everything turns out fine.
I’ve been in Granada for a week. It’s sister city is Antigua, Guatemala, and it has a similar feel. There are lots of tourists and expats here, and plenty of restaurants and bars to support them. You could live in either place and probably never have to learn to speak Spanish.
I wander up to Central Park, where a boy tries to sell me a hammock. “No, gracias,” I say. But he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He follows me around the park for nearly ten full minutes, trying to get me to just reach out and feel the quality of his hammock, to feel the texture. He steps in front of me a few times to try to catch my gaze and slow me down, but I walk around him. I say ‘no’ a few more times, and then I change my strategy and just ignore him. But he will not be deterred. Finally, I walk up to the open door of Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral, and when I step across the threshold into the church, the boy abandons me. I wander up to the statue of Christ on the cross and I meditate on my values for awhile.
Back in Central Park, I find a rarely-found empty bench in the shade. I sit and do the activity that I find to be the most fun – watching people. I try to get into the spirit of this city of 125,000, but I’m failing.
I realize that I miss Leon.
Historically, Granada and Leon battled to be the supreme city in Nicaragua. When the conservatives were in power, they moved the government to Granada; when the liberals were in power they moved the government to Leon. There were vicious battles between the wealthy families of each city. Finally, in the mid 1800s, a compromise was made and the government was moved to Managua, located almost midway between the two cities.
In many ways, Granada and Leon are quite similar. They both are extremely noisy during the day, they both have markets scattered throughout their streets, they both have a central park located just off their most famous cathedrals, and both parks are excellent places for friends and families to hang out after sunset to socialize and play ball games. They both have a multitude of beautiful old colonial homes. Both cater to the tourist and expat crowd with their many bars and restaurants, although, whereas most of these can be found co-located near the cathedral in Granada, the bars and restaurants are spread out around the city in Leon. Both cities suffered from the economic collapse of the country in the early 80s and are still trying to repair their crumbling and neglected roads and buildings. Both cities have lots of churches, cathedrals, museums, tourist shops, volcano tours, city tours, and venues to ease the curiosity and cravings of those who love chocolate and cigars.
Really, from a bird’s eye view, Granada and Leon seem to be very similar, except that Granada is located on a lake and Leon isn’t.
But yet, there is a huge difference in the vibes of these two cities.
Granada wasn’t as nearly affected by the activities of the Sandinistas during the revolution as Leon was. Leon has the feel of grit and determination, with its historical murals proudly displayed on the walls of its buildings, and with the energy of its university students hanging out in the streets discussing how they can improve the world, and with that look in the eyes of its long-suffering citizens of hope, resolution, and purpose.
In comparison to Leon, Granada feels, well, vanilla.
It feels to me that Granada could easily have its culture and identity manipulated with the continued influx of tourists and expats. But I don’t get that same feeling with Leon. There is simply too much pride in Leon, too many heroes in living memory, too many idealistic students, and too many artists and intellectuals for that to happen anytime soon.
I can’t say that I dislike Granada. It’s okay here. I like that it has sharks in its lake and that there are pirate battles in its history, and that when I’m exhausted from walking, I can easily find a restaurant that serves me in English so that I don’t have to think too much in a language I can barely speak. It’s relatively easy to be hanging out here.
But if I had to choose to live in either Leon or Granada, I would pick Leon. It would be more challenging, and I’d have to think and be on my toes a lot more, and I would have to learn to speak Spanish better, and it would take me a lot longer to find the best of the scattered restaurants around town. But in the long run, I think it would be a more rewarding, interesting, and inspiring experience.